Statehouse roundup

Bid to pull testing funds livens up Senate budget debate

The Senate Wednesday rejected a bid by five Republicans to pull $16.8 million in testing funds from the 2015-16 state budget bill.

“What we are hearing from parents is there is too much testing,” argued Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “They want out of this product called PARCC. … This one amendment does something very simple, it defunds PARCC.”

The proposed amendment was offered during the hours-long debate on Senate Bill 15-234, the so-called “long bill” that will set state spending in the upcoming budget year.

Long lists of amendments are proposed to the budget bill every year, mostly by minority party members who know their motions will fail but who want to make political points. The GOP controls the Senate by a one-vote margin this year, and the testing amendment was proposed by five Republicans, all of whom to sit on the Senate Education Committee.

Democratic senators opposed the amendment – along with some key Republicans.

“This is not the place to do it,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and a member of the Joint Budget Committee. “This is something current law requires the state to pay for.”

Later in the debate, JBC chair Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs agreed, saying, “I don’t think this is the right vehicle either. … We try not to make substantive law in the long bill.”

Lambert was referring to the longstanding legislative practice of using the budget bill only to set amounts of funding for programs that are currently required by state law, not to change those programs. Separate sections of state law require the current testing system, and the language of the amendment wouldn’t have changed those. The amendment also didn’t refer specifically to PARCC tests.

It’s also longstanding legislative practice for JBC members of both parties to oppose changes to the long bill, regardless of which party proposes those amendments.

The 40 minutes of debate ended with an initial standing vote. Several Republicans voted no, including Lambert, fellow JBC member Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel of Parker.

The budget bill was debated on what’s called “second reading,” or preliminary consideration. A final Senate vote on the budget will be taken Thursday.

Testing critics will have plenty of other opportunities for debate. The House Education Committee will consider a major testing bill next Monday, and Senate Education will have a testing marathon featuring five bills on April 9. (See the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this story for information and links on all 2015 testing bills.)

House panel advances rural aid bill

Some House Education Committee members questioned the $10 million cost of a new bill intended to help small rural school districts, but the committee passed the measure 10-1 Wednesday after listening to testimony and chewing on it for more than 90 minutes.

House Bill 15-1321 would exempt rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students from certain state requirements related to parent involvement, accountability committee membership, financial reporting, and evaluations, and also provide $10 million in 2015-16 for per-pupil distribution to those districts. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat story and this legislative staff summary.)

2015-Education-Bill-Tracker-plain

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was the biggest skeptic. “I have some concerns about the $10 million. … So many other schools” have financial needs as well, she said. Fields was the only no vote.

Rural administrators and lobbyists from groups including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds and the Colorado League of Charter Schools testified for the measure.

The rural aid bill joins a long line of proposed spending bills awaiting action in the House Appropriations Committee. Each house of the legislature has been allocated only $5 million by the JBC for new or expanded spending this year. But the bills on the appropriations calendar total hundreds of millions of dollars, including more than a dozen education-related measures running to about $280 million.

House Education’s talkative session on rural aid meant it ran out of time to vote on House Bill 15-1322, which would commission a $165,000 study of the data reporting requirements the state imposes on school districts. (See a bill summary here.)

Some committee members complained about the cost; others wondered if it was necessary. When amendments surfaced just before the committee was due to be kicked out of the hearing room for another meeting, chair Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, pulled the bill off the table.

More education bills introduced in House

The session’s May 6 adjournment clock is counting down, but that doesn’t mean the legislative leadership is stopping members from introducing new bills. Here are education-related measures that popped up in the House on Wednesday.

House Bill 15-1326 – This bill would prohibit state colleges from discriminating against applicants who have high school diplomas from districts that have lost state accreditation. The sponsors are Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. Both represent school districts that could soon face state intervention for low performance. The bill has no Senate sponsors.

House Bill 15-1328 – The measure would require youth sports organizations to conduct criminal background checks on staff members and some volunteers. This is a House retread of Senate Bill 15-048, which was killed in the Senate.

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.